Get used to it. We’re going to be talking about COVID-19/coronavirus for the foreseeable future.
The battle lines will inevitably be drawn: Are we overreacting? Underreacting? Is the severity of the fallout Donald Trump’s fault? Is it China’s?
There will be plenty of time for those debates, and they are sure to fill the airwaves from now through November.
When this pandemic-centric chapter of American history is done, the way we do some things will be different.
Just as 9/11 forced policymakers to put an emphasis on homeland security, including air travel, U.S. intelligence agencies, etc., coronavirus will change our world as well.
Travel might include health screenings. Before you board a cruise ship or go through the TSA screening at the airport, at a minimum, you may have to have your temperature taken.
The way we do business may look incredibly different for people with white-collar jobs — those are the people who go to an office and spend 8-10 hours there. Perhaps there is a commute involved. Throw in a lunch hour.
For the past few years, there has been a trend of people working from home. Expect that trend to accelerate.
Obviously, this will not be possible with all jobs and industries, but the rise of online interconnectivity has made the concept of telecommuting possible. The coronavirus pandemic will give businesses a real-world test of just how productive one can be working from home without supervision.
If a sector shows positive results, a brick-and-mortar workplace may not be necessary. Consider how much money could be saved by a company if it could eliminate an expensive office space, which also requires costly utilities.
Also, given the dominance of employer-based health insurance, would it not make sense to eliminate physical workplaces where illnesses like colds and cases of flu are passed around? If that risk is eliminated, might that lower a company’s health insurance costs?
Physically going to work may suffer the same fate as physically going to a shopping mall. Yes, malls still exist, but online retail delivered a blow to the brick-and-mortar model.
Why would that not be the case, where possible, with any other 9-to-5 white-collar professional job? Sure, perhaps you still meet up in person, occasionally. Otherwise, if a task can be completed from home on a computer connected to the internet, why waste time and expense on the commute and space?
This is a trend that probably will not happen overnight. However, it seems likely now.
Consider the recent comeback of the downtown. It was a few decades in the making. Downtown Mobile of the 1980s would hardly recognize downtown Mobile of 2020. Where tumbleweeds once rolled down Dauphin Street in 1985 is now contemporary living spaces and restaurants.
This has been true throughout the country and was driven by the idea of being close to work. The concept has become so popular that now the old downtown is some of the highest-priced real estate on the market.
The storefront concept will never go away. Obviously, a business will want to have a physical presence somewhere to meet with clients, house computer networks or showcase products. You can do that with just a fraction of the space. Instead of two or three floors of a high-rise office building, you only need a third of one floor.
Could the trend ever go in the other direction? If lawyers, accountants and engineers could perform the same tasks from a place that was not at the office building where the real estate is priced high, might they move out of town where a dollar goes much further, or where the K-12 education system is preferable?
Also consider the speed at which coronavirus spread in New York City, probably a product of proximity and thousands of people being in the midst of one another at any given time. Might that dissuade someone from making a life where the population is concentrated, like in a downtown area?
Finally, what about the commute. Yes, the damn commute that plagues every community. Sometimes it is an issue that gives us never-ending debates about $2 billion bridges with a $6 toll each way.
Even in a somewhat rural state like Alabama, the last week of cancelations has killed off the traffic tie-ups at the usual problem areas.
A transition to a work-at-home economy sounds like it has a lot of perks. But as with anything, there will be collateral damage. The lunch spots and coffee shops would suffer. Afterwork, happy hours could go away in some places.
A new normal is sure to come from the coronavirus pandemic. Even if all of this was an overreaction, how can we not change the status quo to prevent such a significant fallout from the next scare?
The Dow Jones Industrial Average had a third of its value wiped out in a matter of weeks. The federal government is going to pump trillions of dollars into the American economy. These are not small measures. They will come with life-altering consequences that will put society in a better place should something like this ever happen again.
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